By Milton Corwin
Many stories have been written by aging warriors of World War Two because of a compulsion to preserve a period in history that occurred briefly but will remain forever in memory. The putative "gentlemen's war" can never again be visited upon this globe.
Now there are machines that can wreak much more havoc in much less time with much more hideous results. Recently I found myself in a reminiscent mood which was triggered by a photograph in an old issue of Air Classics. There it was on the cover in all its glory - the perky, feisty and lethal Douglas A-20 Havoc. I was transported back in time to 1944-1945, back to Corsica, Salon de Provence, France and several villages in western Italy. The 86th Squadron of the 47th Bomb Group in which I served as a bombardier, and was comprised of A-20s, had just been converted from flying daylight missions to exclusively flying night missions.
Instead of typical formation flying, the 47th was ordered to change to night intruder-type missions requiring now one bombardier per plane. Since there was no time to request additional trained crewmen from the US, it was expedient to transfer bombardiers from B-26 groups in Sardinia. I was one of the lucky ones. This new strategy required us to be retrained in a different bombsight - the British Mark IX. The Norden bombsight, which I had spent over a year in mastering, was unsuitable for this new use.
To compound the problem, we were ordered to navigate as well. Since I had just two hours of navigation training in ground school, I thought this new additional duty would be very interesting. Now I can understand why wars must be fought by the very young and who still believed were immortal.
On one particularly black night I was assigned to a crew piloted by Lt. Francis Floyd who was a charmer when not in the air but whose Irish temper bubbled to the surface when at the controls of an aircraft. I was busy, too. I was trying to keep track of our position by doing "follow the pilot" navigation, feed data into the bombsight and look for targets. We were assigned a particular sector to patrol looking for moving lights on the ground. The assumption was, of course that these lights were on Nazi trucks, which were supplying many divisions of German troops. I had a feeling things were not going well when the following dialogue took place. Pilot: Navigator, what is our position? Navigator (bombardier): I haven't the foggiest idea. Pilot: You stupid &*%$#@! - I'll navigate from now on! This sounded reasonable to me except for one problem - the cockpit was over the wing obliterating the view of the ground.
In order to see below, Lt. Floyd dropped the left wing then the right wing and peered over each side. Every time he made these maneuvers he did not use the rudder pedals resulting in uncoordinated turns and resulting in one very sick bombardier. It should also be noted that this was 1944 and these primitive aircraft were not equipped with air sickness bags; now the custom on commercial planes. Consequently the ground crew was not happy to see me. If we actually scored any hits on this mission it was strictly an accident.
On patrol with a different pilot, we were assigned a sector in North Italy near Verona. Visibility was clear. The target was a well-protected railroad marshaling yard. When flak started bursting too close for comfort, it was a simple matter to go into evasive action since we were by ourselves. This was in March 1945 and the Germans no longer had any fighter defenses and relied solely on antiaircraft weapons. They were quite accurate especially if they could get a radar fix. Fortunately they did not score any serious hits on us. At this point I spotted a long series of lights snaking down a mountainside. It had to be a train or a truck convoy - just what we were looking for. We dropped our bombs and headed for home. For the next 20 minutes we could see a magnificent pyrotechnical display, which was the cache of Nazi ammunition lighting up the sky.
The A-20 was a very unique airplane. Light and agile it could be used as a fighter when equipped with a solid nose and bristling with armament, but was also a versatile bomber. The interior, however, was very Spartan. There was room for only one pilot, one bombardier and perhaps two gunners in the aft compartment. The only entry and exit to the nose compartment was through a bottom hatch. Upon entry, the bombardier pulled the hatch up and locked it with an assist from a ground crew person. There was no passageway to the rest of the plane. In addition there was always the hazard of being in the nose upon landing and take off. Many bombardiers were lost in crash landings when the rest of the crew survived.
On one memorable occasion we were returning from a routine mission and I was preparing for the landing. My chest chute pack was off and I was squirming backward in order to fasten the seat belt. Much to my shock and horror the entry hatch gave way and my legs were in the slipstream. It was impossible to lift my legs back into the nose so I grabbed whatever I could and hung on.
This caused the intercom to become disconnected so I could not talk to the pilot. He, of course, assumed I had fallen out. Walt Hansen, the pilot, was very skilled and knew he had to make a smooth landing. The explosive sound of the hatch hitting the extended nose wheel indicated to him what had happened. Happily the landing was smooth and I was able to hang on until we taxied to a stop. It wasn't until an hour later during debriefing that I began to tremble realizing what a narrow escape I had. This was the only occasion that I greedily accepted the ration of rye whiskey that was offered.
The 47th Bomb Group was tactical - it was designed to be always in close support of ground troops. This necessitated many moves. One such move was from Salon de Provence in France to Follonica, Italy. The invasion of southern France went much better than anticipated so the 47th Bomb Group was ordered to Italy to support Mark Clark's 5th Army. Time was of the essence so it was decided to use our own planes as much as possible rather than wait for C-47 cargo planes; except for the very heavy equipment.
Although the A-20 was a fine aircraft for its designed purposes, it left a great deal to be desired as a cargo plane. The US Army Air Force was ingenious and clever, however. This little airplane was now called upon to perform yeoman service as a moving van. I reported to my plane on the flight line with Lt. Ed Stafinski, the pilot, and saw that even if we had used a shoehorn we could not add anything to the load that was aboard. Even the nose compartment was completely full; without an inch of space to spare for me.
Lt. Stafinski and I had a hurried conference an arrived at a solution, albeit illegal. The canopy over the pilot's cockpit closed by means of a hinge, leaving a large deck behind his head. This space was used to store the inflatable life raft. We removed it and consigned it to the miscellany in the waist area. I then lay prone in this newly-formed tunnel. I might add at this point that I stand about five feet four inches and in those years weighed around 120 pounds. My size fortunately became an asset. We lurched into the air and set our course for Italy.
We only vaguely knew the exact location of our new airfield but with the confidence of youth we were unfazed. At approximately the half way point, Lt. Stafinski tapped me and pointed to his instruments. All the electrical dials including the radio were reading zero. We learned later that in my clumsiness I unknowingly turned the generator switch to "off." The batteries had long since been exhausted so now we were very, very anxious to find our airfield.
Finally an airstrip came into view and, lo and behold, there was an A-20 parked next to the tower. We thought it strange to see just one aircraft, but in our perilous situation that airstrip looked very inviting. Our A-20 cum cargo plane landed, taxied to the other plane and was greeted by the crew's horselaugh. "You landed at the wrong place too," they crowed.
A conference was hastily held which was interrupted by a noisy light liaison plane. It circled us, then floated leaf-like to a landing next to us "sans" runway. Expecting to see an arrogant sergeant-pilot, we were non-plussed when a brigadier general emerged to see if he could help. We explained the situation and he offered to fly one of us to a nearby British field to try to contact our group.
Since the pilots had to remain with their planes, I was elected to go with the general.
What a ride! Never rising to more than a hundred feet, he attacked trees rather than climbing over them. Whether it was for my benefit or not I do not know, but my heart was in my mouth for the length of the trip.
Again he effected the "leaf-like" landing in front of the operations tent and left me to my own devices. I collected my wits and found an officer who contacted my group by phone. I learned a rescue party had been dispatched and I should get back as soon as possible. After several hitchhiking rides, I was reunited with my squadron - one very tired second lieutenant.
From my current vantage point of almost 50 years, these memories of WWII have acquired a musty rosy glow. The mind somehow dims the recollections of unpleasant incidents but recalls, instead, moments of delight and happiness. The time I spent with the 86th Bomb Squadron of the 47th Bomb Group will always remain as an important period of maturation and growth.